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Frank McKenna heads up Stream

When Frank McKenna gracefully exited the political stage in the fall of 1997, the cheeky, Newfoundland pundit Rex Murphy bade farewell to the outgoing Premier of New Brunswick calling him a "blip of n...

July 1, 2000  

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When Frank McKenna gracefully exited the political stage in the fall of 1997, the cheeky, Newfoundland pundit Rex Murphy bade farewell to the outgoing Premier of New Brunswick calling him a “blip of normalcy on the dark, crazy radar screen of politics”. It was high praise that was well deserved.

McKenna and his provincial Liberals did, after all, win every seat in the New Brunswick legislature when the boyish-faced Frank first took office. Then, after ten successful years, the boss of Canada’s only French province did what he promised he would do — he said “adieu” and retired from politics.

Since then, his name occasionally pops up as a possible candidate for the leadership of the federal Liberal party, but this has more to do with the machinations of pollsters intent on hyping the party than on any desire from the man himself to throw his hat back in the circus that is Canadian politics.

“I miss the electricity of politics,” says McKenna from his home outside Moncton, New Brunswick, “but I have learned to find thrills in other places, in other ways. I was not vain enough to think that I needed to continue in politics and I am not so nostalgic that I am going to go back.”

Why would anyone come back to such a cut-throat business? In McKenna’s case it would be particularly foolish since he left on an impossibly high note, having built a firm legacy largely based on growing the province’s high-tech sector between 1987 and 1997. History will show that he helped to establish New Brunswick as a leader in terms of its telecommunications infrastructure, secured significant bandwidth for the region at a time when connectivity was just being recognized as king, and transformed the once-economically ravaged region into the preferred site for dozens of low-cost local and international call centers.

Going back to politics would be, he says, like taking up contact hockey again. “Sure, I miss it, but I’m not crazy enough to play again.” Besides, McKenna seems to have found contentment in the private sector, where he makes his presence felt on ten corporate boards, ranging from a mining company to a financial institution to a high-tech firm.

The chairman’s seat

Nowhere is McKenna’s mark more in evidence than at Stream Intelligent Networks Corp. It is there, at the Toronto-based company, that he recently turned a year’s worth of experience on the board of directors into an election to the post of chairman. When asked about the decision to ascend to the top job, McKenna says, “I like the space we occupy and I like the potential of the company.” He promises to play an “active role in the expansion of Stream’s high-speed data networking services in major Canadian cities.”

A lawyer by training (he is a partner with MCI’s Cooper & Robertson in Moncton), he does not claim to be an expert when it comes to networking issues. That said, McKenna speaks knowledgeably about Stream’s work as a provider of high-speed communications network services to carriers, network service providers, and large bandwidth users in Canada. “I have a working knowledge of the sector and feel that as chairman I can facilitate relationships with new partners and other players in the industry.”

The new chairman is expected to guide the young company through a highly competitive communications market, where rivals have established, recognizable names like AT&T and Rogers. It is a formidable task (one in which he will be assisted by Stream president and CEO Steve Spooner), especially for someone with no experience laying cable or even flipping switches. But no one should underestimate the gentleman, scholar, lawyer, politician and businessman who has excelled at almost every task he has undertaken.

Wheeler and dealer

McKenna, who has a well-deserved reputation as an honest but aggressive wheeler and dealer, flourishes in environments where he can bring individuals and groups together in a constructive way before quickly moving on to the next complicated task at hand.

He will certainly have his business skills put to the test at Stream. The company, like its chairman, has charted a challenging course that leads to a destination that is referred to in its promotional literature as “a leadership position in independent fiber and wireless communication”. Attaining such status will have as much to do with the company’s seamless and reliable connections — based on SONET and ATM self-healing architectures — as corporate leadership.

Founded in 1997, the company has developed a network that is currently concentrated in the Greater Toronto area, but has plans to manage close to 100 “points of presence”. Stream took a lengthy stride toward this goal in May when it announced the establishment and commercial deployment of the first high-density, fixed wireless link in Canada. The link interconnected customers in two office towers in downtown Toronto at speeds of 155 Mbps using radio spectrum at 38 GHz.

Stream also made headlines with a successful bid at Industry Canada’s 1999 24/38 GHz wireless auction at which the company secured 92 radio wireless license in all 56 regions across Canada.

Bandwidth issue and wireless solutions are far cries from the back rooms of politics, but McKenna seems to be at home in the high-tech arena. “Bandwidth is growing exponentially and it is great to be a part of such a complex and rewarding process,” he says. “In one [board] meeting we can talk about connection costs, sewer technology as a means of laying new cable in a city, and a handful of other issues. It’s exciting.”

Whether it is politics or private enterprise, Frank McKenna is a networking specialist. CS

David Napier is a freelance writer and editor from Halifax who now lives in Toronto.

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